Manhunter

Image from soundonsight.org

This 1986 cult classic by Michael Mann is one of the most stylish adaptations of the Thomas Harris novels. Based on his early thriller Red Dragon, the film focuses on Will Graham (William Peterson), a criminal profiler called out of early retirement to investigate a case. The subject is Francis Dollarhyde, a particularly nasty serial killer who wipes out entire families. To ‘recover the mindset’ of a killer, Graham visits Lecktor (Brian Cox), the killer whose case caused him to retire in the first place. While Lecktor is only a minor character his presence haunts the investigation, as Graham closes in on his quarry. The visuals and soundtrack are unique and stylish.

On the surface, Manhunter has some oddities: the malevolent Lecktor is treated as important yet does very little, the killer is suddenly given a romantic sub-plot halfway through the film and a line of communication between Lecktor and the killer is set up but results in nothing. However, I would argue that all these points tie into a deeper structure in the plot; The structure of semantics. The characters work as symbols. As symbols, the relationships between these characters form a coherent structure in the film’s argument’s about good  and evil.

The heart of the film is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, and the blurred boundaries of that relationship. It is here that Lecktor comes into play. A slightly different version of the infamous Hannibal Lecter, Lecktor’s role is to symbolise pure evil. Graham is a symbol of humanity that is compromised by its connection with evil. The killer Dollarhyde is a symbol of crazed, confused evil mitigated by a scrap of humanity. The relationship these characters have to Lecktor is symbolic of their relationship to their own internal evil. Both try to utilise that relationship, and neither get precisely what they want out of it. Graham’s attempts to understand a killer’s mindset while staying detached do not quite work for him. The killer’s awkward attempt to bond with Lecktor through letters never truly comes to fruition. Lecktor is representative of an extreme.

As a symbol, the character of Hannibal Lecter can be used to make a statement on the nature of evil. In the Silence of the Lambs he is used to say that evil might have a superficial charm that disguises utter horror. In the NBC series Hannibal he is used to say that evil is attractive, destructive and destroys those it attracts. Manhunter’s statement on evil is that it is simply nasty. Brian Cox plays Lecktor as fast-talking, obnoxious, mean-spirited and petty. Manhunter has no interest whatsoever in the attraction of evil. It is humanity that is attractive.

A major element in the film’s exploration of its themes is the killer’s humanity. Dollarhyde, played by Tom Noonan, is a uniquely disturbing character. Everything about him is presented as ‘off’ in some way: The crabbed way he uses his hands, his confused, strained expression when he talks, even his overly loud clothing. Coupled with his terrible violence, he embodies eerie, unsettling and utterly dangerous psychosis. Unlike the novel, the film does not attempt to get at the root of his insanity. We are given hints at fantasies of power and masculinity, at some twisted idea of love, but these fantasies are not truly made clear. We are not meant to understand his insanity, but to be frightened of it. Having set up Dollarhyde in this way, the film then shows him falling in love. The romantic sub-plot, while a little rushed, serves a very deliberate purpose; It shows us a tragedy. Dollarhyde’s sudden romance with his blind girlfriend Reba (Joan Allen) provides him with love and acceptance. But he is too insane to process it. During his love scenes, the film’s striking visuals linger on Dollarhyde’s tortured face. He is emotionally overwhelmed, bewildered, powerless before the warmth and acceptance being offered him. Worse, romance is not sustainable for someone like this. At the first flash of jealously he reverts to violence. Love is not presented redemptive in this context; it is presented as part of the killers’ nature. It is an indelible, troubling and largely useless facet of his character that makes him both human and tragic.

Tom Nonnan as Dolyharde. Image from moviepilot.com

While Dollarhyde represents a monster mitigated by humanity, Graham represents the other side of the coin. He is the embodiment of humanity, but a humanity that is compromised and troubled. The film is seen primarily through his eyes, the camerawork and visuals mirroring his internal processes. Initially, Graham is surrounded with images of the quiet, humble family life he leads before being taken out of retirement. This life is gently romanticised, the most beautiful cinematography in the film being devoted to Graham’s scenes with his wife. However, this idyllic life is corrupted and disturbed by the investigation. The choice to investigate puts strain on Graham’s marriage upsets his son and eventually puts the whole family in danger. These external problems reflect the internal problems going on in Grahams’ psyche. He cannot help being affected and damaged by the work he does. A psychological relationship with evil, as symbolised by Lecktor, is necessary to the way he works. This is a corrupting relationship. Because of the semantics of the film, a confrontation with the killer is inevitable. When this confrontation happens, Graham does not escape mentally or physically unscathed, in keeping with the film’s themes.

Graham’s problems stem from a dilemma. This is the dilemma that is presented by the existence of evil: do you deal with it and take inevitable damage? Or do you retreat and try to preserve your own innocence? The answer Manhunter presents us with is: Retreat is not really an option. Graham cannot turn away from the crimes he is presented with, because his humanity will not let him. There is a price to not turning away, because in the semantics of Manhunter, contact brings corruption.

In the end, Manhunter is about the spectrum of good and evil, and the tragedies inherent in that spectrum. Graham’s tragedy is the tragedy of compromised integrity. Dollarhyde’s tragedy is the tragedy of largely corrupted humanity, craving love but unable to sustain it. We are asked to consider both of these tragedies, and the way they relate to true evil. The conclusion of Manhunter’s exploration of its themes is: contact with evil is inevitable, damage is inevitable, but integrity can still be preserved. Graham emerges triumphant in the end, scarred but whole. The price of contact is not too high.

Brazil and 1984

 

Brazil DVD.jpg

http://filmguide.wikia.com/wiki/Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s inexplicably named 1985 masterpiece is one of the most pertinent warnings against the future I have ever seen-unsurprising since it is based on George Orwells Nineteen Eighty-four, surely the last word in dystopian fiction. However, Brazil despite its very worldly and grim origins achieves what I thought was impossible: It makes an optimistic fantasy-comedy out of Orwells material.

For those of you who have never read Orwell, you cannot conceive the surprise at realising it could be done; for me it was like watching a tractor give birth to a kitten. Nineteen Eighty-four is the feel-bad book of all time. It depicts a world in which totalitarianism has completely dominated the world; the three super-states which now rule are perpetually at war with each other, while systematically oppressing and terrorising the people they rule over. Privacy is nonexistent, and unorthodox thought punishable by death. The unhappy hero furtively rebels against the government by 1. Keeping a diary and 2. Having a loving sexual relationship.

Brazil retains many of the themes and motifs of Nineteen Eighty-four, but Gilliams makes the film not only enjoyable but addictive. Brazil focuses on the potential dangers of where society may be headed, but observes the dangers of bureaucracy as much as totalitarianism. This is an improvement in itself. It is easier to laugh at the grim idiocies of a society where failure to receipt a cheque is listed as a crime against the state. It also shifts the focus to an equally horrific but-perhaps-more readily possible state of affairs. The society portrayed is also a lot less downtrodden and a lot more resistant, with terrorist bombings and underground activism playing a considerable part in the plot. Optimism and escapism are two very consistent themes in this film-ones less prominant in Nineteen Eighty-four. The inhumanity of bureaucracy is set as a background the hero (Jonathan Pryce) strives to escape from, first passively through his daydreams, then actively through his pursuit of romance. The daydreams are truly beautiful, with the hero cast as a superman-type figure with an inexplicable haircut, gliding through a fantasy wonderland.

http://brianrayfiction.com/blog1/tag/brazil/

As the hero becomes more active, the daydreams become correspondingly darker. The pursuit of romance and rebellion against the state are reflected dazzlingly in the heroes subconscious in a way that brings something very fresh and new to a relatively drab idea. This approach to the story of Nineteen Eighty-four even tempers a truly hideous ending into something comparatively bearable. The heroes torture at the hands of the thought police in Eighty-four is neatly avoided in Brazil. Instead the director wisely opts to show the deliriums of a crazed subconscious in a series of nightmare sequences reflecting the themes of inhumanity, escapism and romance.

The stress on optimism in a film like this is an example our film industry ought to follow; in an adaptation of that grimmest of tomes, Gilliam portrays society very much alive and kicking; in our social atmosphere there are plenty who might do the opposite. In the approach to a torture scene he focuses on the humanity of the victim; a pornographic focus on pain was the norm for some directors even in the Eighties. To make a compelling, optimistic film is one thing. To make it out of a mine for pessimism is another. Thank you Terry Gilliam.

Suspiria

There are some directors I cant really forgive, and Argento is high on that list, just below Bela Tarr. This astonishingly violent arthouse piece was produced in Italy, but has been virtually unheard-of across Europe, because of its scandalous content, which is nearly on a level with the sheer technical skill of its production. The plotline is simple: naïve American ballet student travels to study in Germany, where she discovers that her dance teachers are really witches, who periodically murder people. However, if you don’t examine pay attention you might be forgiven for thinking that the story is just a front for the imagery: the architecture of the school alone looks like gothic confectionary gone mad, aided by the outdated Technicolor process used to enhance the colours. The remarkable score, courtesy of the rock band Goblin (no, I haven’t herd of them either) gives the whole thing a remarkably fresh, timeless feel.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/jan/09/dvd-blu-ray-reviews-the-guide

Pity about the content then! Although admittedly, critics have commented that without the violence this would not be the same film, I personally think that the murders in Suspiria are beyond gratuitous. The opening scene alone sees a student stabbed, disembowelled and hanged by the neck, which is surely a bit impolite:

 And it only gets worse. However, the maddening fact is that you can never dismiss this film as prettified trash. The violence hides a real exploration of female power struggles. The witches are hideously evil and violent because they represent the pinnacle of female corruption. Some critics have identified what they think is a lesbian undertone in the film, and I would say they are not far off: the witches seek to corrupt the dance students, possibly by seduction. Those girls who seem to be corrupted are certainly more sexualised than the two girls Susie and Sarah who try to work out what’s going on in the school. Its interesting to examine how innocence and experience are portrayed in this film; it seems to me that the director is more interested in symbolism and iconography in his portrayal of the characters, which reinforces the impression that he is exploring the female psyche: Susie and Sarah, the good girls, are nearly identical, flat-chested, Bambi-eyed innocents. Their very similarity suggests that here is an archetype of female virtue, rather than a rounded character. The witches and the corrupted girls are much less identical, but care is taken to indicate corruption; they are sexualised, so much that you can hardly blame those critics who assume this is a lesbian film; the scene in which a student seductively tells her teacher “I have something to tell you… might as well have a neon signpost over it saying DODGY UNDERTONES.  But I don’t think lesbianism is the issue. The male presence in this film is almost nonexistent, and the director is trying to indicate that corruption is a threat to girls in this school. More pertinently, the destruction of innocence, by violence or seduction, is the aim of the witches. Thus the school becomes the setting for power struggles between good and evil in the female psyche.

As the film nears its end, the symbolism becomes more obvious; Sarah is murdered, in a typically appalling way, and her body mutilated. Susie is forced to confront the coven leader, Helena Marcos, who represents absolute evil, and has been lurking at the heart of the school all along. Rather than fight Susie herself the witch calls up the desecrated body of Sarah to kill her:

Helena Marcos: you wanted to kill me! You wanted to KILL me! Ahahahahah!

Door creeks partly open

Helena Marcos: Hell is behind that door! You’ll need death now! For the living dead!

The bloody, mutilated body of Sarah lurches into the room, cackling madly, with a knife in her hand and nails through her eyes.

 In this scene, a symbol of innocence has been corrupted and become the instrument of Evil. It is clear that the directors intention is to portray a psychological truth in the film, not a literal one (I grant that you will have cottoned on that cackling corpses are not a literal truth.) psychologically, corruption and the death of innocence are the same thing. The body of Sarah in this scene is no different really to the corrupted students: she is the tool of the witches, and corrupt herself. She is a warning to Susie (the only remaining symbol of innocence) of the very real danger she is in. Argentos interpretation of the female psyche is clearly that it is a battleground, in which good stands in constant danger from the plague-like influence of evil, which turns goodness into a reflection of itself. Thank you mister Argento, when you feel like making a children’s programme I will be sure to watch. 

 

 

The Devil wears Prada

 

“The Devil wears Prada” Is a comedy-drama film set in the cut-throat world of the New York fashion industry where a warm, naïve journalist is driven to conform to the chilly, inhuman ideologies of her new co-workers. The clash between what is human and individual and what is cold and commercial embodies the struggle between conformity and individualism in today’s consumer society.

To many people, the fashion industry epitomises what is best and worst about consumer culture; It is perceived and represented as supremely elegant, cold-hearted and exploitative. It also has the attraction of perfectionism: this is embodied in the protagonists awe-inspiring boss Miranda. 

 

Miranda could be seen as a rarefied example of the culture she inhabits. She is elitist, perfectionist, supremely demanding, and unforgiving of anything which lowers her standards. Miranda’s appearance signifies her personality; “With her silver hair and pale skin, her whispery diction as perfect as her posture, Ms. Streep’s Miranda inspires both terror and a measure of awe…a vision of aristocratic, purposeful and surprisingly human grace.”[1]

This characters appearance and personality together signify the forces that people believe lie behind high fashion. To break down the sign and signifier, we have: A powerful and cold fashion magazine editor. This signifies power, commercialism and elegance. The sign in context is the driving force behind a large part of modern mass culture.

The protagonist is compelled to conform to her Boss’ ideals, because high standards and efficiency draw admiration. She is greatly rewarded, with the sort of rewards the fashion industry offers; her career goes successfully, she gains a wonderful sense of style, and she is respected in the circles she works in. However, she rejects the rewards of  the fashion industry because the values Miranda personifies deny sentiment and human warmth.

The coldness and perfectionism of commercial art is signified in this film by Miranda’s attitude:

Miranda:  ….and you have no style, or sense of fashion…

Andy:  I think that depends on your definition of-

Miranda:  No no. That wasn’t a question.

http://moviesmedia.ign.com/movies/image/article/712/712586/the-devil-wears-prada-20060613055649070-000.jpg

 

The conformity demanded of the protagonist mirrors the conformity of the average person in the face of the pressure put on consumers in the modern world. Her co-workers sneering hostility pressures the newcomer to change in the same way that advertising pressures everyone to change, update, purchase, for fear of being out of line with everyone else. While human beings allow for and value individuality, fashion demands conformity; in this film, so do those who commit themselves to it.

This view of the fashion industry is, of course, a fiction. It is shaped by the perceptions of the masses, and has been criticised as unrealistic.[2] Roland Barthes would say that the

representation of the subject distorts rather than hides the reality.

The protagonists rejection of Miranda’s ideology signifies the moral message of the film which in turn signifies the ideology of our society; because we value the warm and individual above cold efficiency, it is necessary for the protagonist to resign, and re-enter her easygoing circle of friends and family. 

To move from Semiology to ideology, you could say that this film is an examination of the clash between what is national and impersonal, and what is individual and human.